Justin Heazelwood (aka The Bedroom Philosopher) is an odd character. Maybe it was growing up in Burnie, Tasmania, maybe it was living in Canberra while at Uni or maybe it’s the bohemian Melbourne lifestyle. Either way, it makes for musical comedy gold. Preparing the release of his new album Songs From The 86 Tram, Justin answered a few questions from Jason Strange about the album, his decorated writing career, how he still doesn’t know the lyrics to ‘You’re The Voice’ and about looking forward to turning 30 this year.
Music Feeds: You’re about to release Songs From The 86 Tram based on last years Melbourne Comedy Festival show, what was so special about the songs on the 86 tram?
Justin Heazelwood: It was an exercise in character exploration. In comedy, bogans get made fun of all the time, and old people and junkies are all easy targets. I was interested in taking on demographics that are rarely satirised in any way. Indie muso’s, wanky artists, middle aged women and refugees all get a mention. My last album Brown & Orange was all about me and delving into my own strange mind, so for this project I was keen to basically not be in the show at all. Yet, at the same time, naturally, I’m in each of the characters in one way or another.
I’m always trying to find the perfect blend of music and humour, so that one doesn’t compromise the other. I want to write and record songs that are musically rocking and lyrically funny and engaging, that stand up to repeated listening and you could put on the background at a party without everyone suddenly calling cabs. With this show and album I feel like I’ve finally achieved it. After Brown and Orange I wasn’t in a great place. The album took too long to make and was heavily delayed and burdened by all kinds of problems and it depressed me and took a great toll on my confidence and sense of momentum.
With Songs From The 86 Tram I hadn’t done Melbourne Comedy Festival in four years, and sat down at my desk and literally wrote myself out of a hole. So to then essentially direct and produce the show myself, and have it go so well and win awards was enormously healing. Subsequently, the album was a dream to make. I learnt a bunch of lessons from the last one and had my band The Awkwardstra all fired up. And now that ‘Northcote (So Hungover)’ has gone so well I feel like I’m back on the map. Not just the I’m So Post Modern guy. (“Really…is he still going?” *Polite smirk*).
MF: Where did the Bedroom Philosopher moniker come from?
JH: I had a segment on JJJ’s morning show in 2002. The producer Vicki Kerrigan heard my demos and said the lyrics were like bedroom philosophy. They started calling me that. I’m glad, it’s better than the other name I was gonna go with, ‘Damp Slacks.’
MF: You’re a prolific writer, from Frankie magazine to working on The Ronnie James Half Hour show. Do you find it hard to continually write comedy or is a natural process?
JH: My head is set to puns and the handle’s broken off. I’m a bit like the Rain Man. Or Russel Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Except instead of a wondrous, tangled map of maths equations sprawling out of my head it’s just wordplays and 90’s references. I’m pretty hell-bent on writing what I know. I mean, I did professional writing at uni, and about the only thing I can remember from those three years is ‘write what you know’ and ‘why haven’t you done the readings?.’ Looking back, I kind of resent the bombardment of American and British culture I had all through my childhood.
Growing up in Burnie in Tasmania was a very isolating experience – I had this weird hang up that nothing Australian could be that good. Especially with music. I didn’t own an Australian album until I went to Uni. So from that angle I try and over correct by making my stuff try and capture a flavour that is uniquely Australian. You also tend to get a lot of people banging on about ‘focus on the UK and US markets, don’t make it too localised’ blah blah, so with 86 Tram I went, oh yeah, how about a concept album about Melbourne tram culture. Sell that. Oh, I’m sure if Sufjan Stephens did it about the New York subway system we’d all be creaming our cardigans.
Also, from a comedy perspective, I resent all the dumbed down, ‘aim it at the mainstream’ kind of material that you get on TV and from a lot of stand-ups, so I’ve taken it upon myself to try and write for my kind. I can’t stand a world where the true strangeness and idiosyncrasies of life are regularly glossed over and tucked away in the too hard basket. People get depressed, have disturbing dreams, have mentally ill family members, get incredibly bitter and cynical, have weird fights with friends, hate themselves. I’m all for embracing those things and making fun of them. Humour is great for that, I’ve always thought of my act as taking all the scary parts of my soul and dragging them onto stage so everyone can see them and we can all realise that they aren’t really that scary, and certainly not bigger than us.
MF: What’s the best way to handle a heckler?
JH: Passive aggressiveness. I write a note and stick it to their chair. Or I use the line ‘Go back to alcoholics anonymous and deal with your Dad issues.’
MF: Where do you prefer playing, music venues or comedy clubs?
JH: Today, comedy rooms, tomorrow, music venues. I’ve spend the last eight years trying to find the answer to this. At the end of the day I’m a comedian and a musician. Part of me has always felt that to truly satisfy both parties I would need to frequent both the music and comedy scenes. Between 06-08 I had a pretty awkward transition period of starting a band and only playing music venues. It was still the same act essentially, but with more focus on the music. But I think people got the wrong idea, they thought that I’d turned into Radiohead all of a sudden, and the comedy industry didn’t want a bar of it.
The problem with comedy venues was that a lot of my subtler songs I’d scratch from the setlist for fear they weren’t funny enough , and it started to feel like I was clowning my act up too much, when in fact these songs meant a lot to me as a songwriter. After a whole bunch of horrendous soul searching and flitting back and forth like a cat who doesn’t know if he wants to go in or out, I struck the right balance last year. I did Melbourne Comedy Festival soon followed by an album tour in music venues with a band and basically satisfied both worlds.
Bedroom Philosopher needs two modes, it’s as simple as that. It’s a tough one. Music crowds get freaked out if you do material. There is stuff that a music crowd will laugh at that a comedy crowd won’t touch, and vice versa. It’s a good workout as a performer to be perceptive to what frequencies are needed for which. I mean, who wants to be comfortable, EVER, not me. I thought, if I’m gonna be doing this for the next 20 years then I need to be satisfied. I’m a Gen-Y only child Gemini. Does it make sense now? I want to do everything, and multi-task my head off while being incredibly indecisive and temperamental. What have I learnt? It’s best not to over-analyse these things. Good luck with that.
MF: You went to Uni in Canberra, most people like to hang shit on Canberra. I used to live there as well, it’s not such a bad place. What would your tourism slogan be for the ACT?
JH: Canberra – better than Adelaide.
MF: You hold the record for the longest continuous singing of John Farnham’s ‘You’re The Voice’. How long did you sing it for and why?
JH: 9 hours. I intended to go for 12 but I got bored in the end. It was a publicity stunt. I like the idea of endurance performance. In the end my voice held out fine but my wrist got RSI from all the strumming. The best thing about it was I had the lyrics on a sheet in front of me, and after nine hours, I still didn’t know the lyrics, as if my brain was rejecting them. Channel 7 came down to film it and I was the odd spot at the end of the news that night – but they said I was promoting the Melbourne Comedy Festival and didn’t mention my show at all. The lesson is, never try.
MF: You’ve done a bit of acting in the past, most recently playing John Safran in ‘Race Relations’, is acting an avenue you’d be interesting in pursuing?
JH: Absolutely. Read: Gen-Y multi-tasking. I’m a triple-threat! I acted a lot in Year 12 and uni and always loved it. Then I kind of forgot about it, and part of writing Songs From The 86 Tram as a bunch of characters was being able to flex my wings in that department. I’d love to play some villainous, deranged character in a gritty Australian film . At Uni I was always typecast as the mentally crippled, sexually confused characters. I don’t know what it is about me but I do ‘nuts’ well.
MF: Are you looking forward to turning 30 this year or is it freaking you out?
JH: I can’t wait. I feel like my twenties are a burning wreckage that I need to commando roll out of and move on from. I wrote a column for Frankie defending the turning 30 thing. It’s too easy to dread it, I want to rebel. Of course – it’s easy for me to say, I’m not a woman with a biological clock ticking, although, I was reading up on it and men’s sperm is effected by age as well, and I’d like to have a kid one day. Every day he gets dumber. I’ve stopped drinking and smoking so I’m feeling a bit zen about my 30’s. It’s an extra set of your twenties but you know what you’re doing, surely. Look, I can handle anything, except losing my hair. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach then the way to a man’s brain is through his hair. If I lose that then I’m gonna flip. Or go hat shopping. Lucky Melbourne has a lot of good hat shops.
MF: Final question, what would be the first song you would put on a mix tape?
JH: Beck’s ‘Soldier Jane’ from The Information. I think a lot about this cos two years ago I spent a year crafting an ideal mix that I gave to all my friends on my birthday. (I kicked off with Eels ‘Fresh Feeling’). So I’m now working on the difficult second mix CD.
Justin is taking his Bedroom Philosopher moniker on the road for the next few months. Full tour details are below.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival
‘Songs From The 86 Tram’
Thursday 25th March to Sunday 18th April
Victoria Hotel, Melbourne, 215 Little Collins
Tickets: $23.50 / $19.50 conc. from www.ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 660 013
9:45 pm (8:45pm on Sundays & no Mondays)
Wednesday 28th April
The Front Café, Canberra
2 Wattle St, Lyneham – (02) 6249 8453
Doors 8pm. $12 (door sales only)
Sydney Comedy Festival
Thursday 29th April
The Vanguard, Sydney
Doors 6:30PM The Vanguard, 42 King St, Newtown
Bookings sydneycomedyfest.com.au or 02 9020 6966
Wednesday 5th May
Grace Emily, Adelaide
232 Waymouth St, Adelaide. (08) 8231 5500
Doors 8:30pm. $12 (door sales only)
Thursday 6th May
Alley Cat, Hobart
381 Elizabeth St, North Hobart. Tasmania. (03) 62312299
Doors 8pm. $12 (door sales only)
Friday 7th May
Royal Oak, Launceston
14 Brisbane St, Launceston, Tasmania (03) 6331 5346
Doors 8pm $12 (door sales only)
Sunday 9th May
119 Lamington St. New Farm (07) 3358 8600
FREE ENTRY, headlining ‘Livewired’ Comedy. Starts 6:30pm.